March Madness always brings exposure to smaller schools on a national level, as schools like University of Maryland-Baltimore County pull seemingly impossible upsets that force the sports world’s eyes to a school that has an enrollment of 13,662.
According to a report from ESPN’s Darren Rovell, the UMBC bookstore website sold twice as much gear in 24 hours as they had over an entire year following their win over number-one seed University of Virginia.
Another small school that made noise in the tournament was Loyola-Chicago. The 11th-seeded Ramblers advanced to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament and have seen an increase of nearly 1,500 percent in apparel sales this past month compared to March 2017.
WKU has also had athletic accomplishments that have led to increased exposure. Looking back at one of the most memorable moments in the history of WKU athletics, an increase in apparel sales can be seen.
During and after WKU’s Sweet 16 run in 2008, the WKU Store saw an increase in revenue of 63 percent in the months of February, March and April, compared to 2007. The store totaled $199,716 in revenue sales from those three months in 2007. In 2008, the store totaled $314,029 in those same three months.
“In anything in America, people like the hot thing,” WKU athletics director Todd Stewart said. “I think when athletics is successful, it increases interest and it drives people to want to have merchandise, or to get new merchandise, or to get the most recent thing.”
Following WKU’s appearance in the semifinal of NIT, Stewart said he expects that history will repeat itself in terms of an increase in apparel sales.
The increase in sales during WKU’s athletic successes in 2008 would support this, but WKU did not see the same kind of sales boost following the team’s consecutive Conference USA championships in football.
In 2015, the WKU football team won their first of two consecutive conference championships, but actually saw a nearly $200,000 decrease in apparel for the WKU Store. The next year, the WKU Store would see another near $200,000 decrease in apparel sales, despite the back-to-back conference championships.
“That surprises me a little bit,” Stewart said on the dips in sales. “I think that in a year when we win a conference championship the interest that people have in apparel and merchandise would have increased here on campus.”
Stewart said the degree of national exposure that comes with a basketball tournament run is greater, compared to a football conference championship.
“The scope of attention is way beyond southcentral Kentucky, and that’s what I think has happened with men’s basketball here,” Stewart said. “I mean we’ve won in Los Angeles, and then we went to Oklahoma State and won.”
While the possible financial benefits to WKU’s NIT semifinal appearance are clear, Stewart and basketball head coach Rick Stansbury think that the success could also help increase WKU’s enrollment.
“The year we made our Final Four run [at Mississippi State], enrollment went up 3,000 people,” Stansbury said. “People want to be a part of winning. They want to be a part of athletic success.”
WKU saw an increase in enrollment applications of 8 percent from 2007 to 2008 after the basketball team’s Sweet 16 appearance.
After the football team won the C-USA championship in 2015, enrollment applications saw an increase of nearly 700 people. WKU totaled 8,957 first-year freshman applicants in the 2015-16 year. WKU also won the conference championship in 2016, and WKU totaled 9,693 first-year freshman applicants in the 2016-17 academic year. The application numbers continued to rise in 2017-18, as they received 9,804 first-year freshman applications.
“How much of an effect does that have on students making their decision on where to go to college? It has a lot of impact on them, because they see Western Kentucky can be as good as anybody in the country,” Stansbury said. “All they’ve got to do then is visit campus, and once they visit campus, they can see it for themselves.”
Jace Lux, the director of recruitment and admissions at WKU, said that athletics generally generates more interest, but it’s difficult for the Admissions Office to pinpoint whether or not students apply because of athletics.
“In 2015 and 2016, our office was much more innovative and aggressive in targeting prospective students in ways it hadn’t been before,” Lux said in an email. “It’s very difficult to pin application increases down to any one single factor. Athletic success certainly doesn’t hurt, and, as a general rule, athletic success contributes to short term spikes in interest in a college or university. Whether that interest translates into students who otherwise wouldn’t have applied now taking the next step and submitting an application is difficult to determine.”
The key to both the potential financial and enrollment benefits to athletics success is the exposure that comes with excelling on a national stage. 730,000 viewers tuned into the WKU game at Oklahoma State, per John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal. WKU’s loss to University of Utah in the NIT semifinal averaged 815,000 viewers, Ourand said.
WKU also received a substantial amount of attention on social media. The final score graphic posted by the team page on Facebook had reached nearly 250,000 people as of March 24, according to data from WKU athletic media relations.
On Twitter, the final score graphic was seen by over 100,000 people, and the WKU men’s basketball Twitter page itself had been seen by almost three million people in a 28-day span, up 89 percent from the previous month.
The university website also saw increased traffic. In the nine days prior to the team’s second round game against University of Southern California, the WKU.edu page had been viewed just under 7,000 times per day. In the three days following WKU defeating USC, the page was viewed an average of over 16,000 times per day.
The team’s semifinal matchup against NIT also brought more traffic to the university’s home page. In a three day period starting the day before the game and ending the day after, WKU.edu saw an uptick of over 7,000 average visits per day, as compared to the three days prior.
“I think obviously when you’re successful in athletics you would expect your page views of athletics and that particular team to go up,” Stewart said. “When you see that it’s more than doubled who’s going to the university’s site, that’s not coincidental, and I think that’s the impact that athletics can have on all this.”
Despite ultimately falling to Utah in the NIT semifinals, WKU’s hopes are still high that the team’s success and time in the spotlight can have a positive effect on the university as a whole.
“We need more students knowing you can come to Western Kentucky and won’t have to take a backseat to anybody,” Stansbury said. “You can walk in wearing that red and be proud of it. You can be proud to be a part of Western Kentucky and be proud to be a Hilltopper.”
Reporter Tyler Eaton can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler_eaton1022